When doing my best wasn’t good enough

I’ve been working with clients as an external consultant for 10 years. I’ve been helping people in a variety of other internal (and non-professional) capacities for much longer. One of the challenges of doing this is knowing how to respond when a client calls and is sure about what they need.

‘I need an awayday — can you give me a price?’ As I ask questions, it usually becomes clear quite quickly that what they are asking for is not going to solve their problem — or deliver the results that they are seeking.

I always used to do my best. I’d ask them lots of questions to help clarify the issues. I’d explain how what they were proposing could be modified to give them better outcomes. More often than not, though, we’d arrive at a few modifications to what they first proposed. I’d put the phone down and know that the agreed solution fell short of what they really needed.

What clients know — and what they don’t

Clients usually don’t know what they need. They know a lot about the current situation and problems. They have some knowledge about what they want. They don’t know much about the best way to bridge the gap. That’s why they are talking to me!

Consultancy marketing guru, Robert Middleton, explains it like this:

Every client is on ‘Pain Island’. The problems are all too familiar to them. The personal impact and experience is vivid and consuming.

Every client wants to be on ‘Pleasure Island’. A destination at which not only are the problems solved but where the experience is positive, rewarding and completely different. Often their understanding of this state is only partial, obscured by the overwhelming problems and frustrations of the present.

As a consultant, I’m a boat builder. My expertise is in designing the vehicle needed to travel from one island to the other. The client is not an expert in this. I am.

Stepping up to be an expert

I’m not just a boat building expert — I’m a boat building geek! I’ve always been fascinated by change processes, human systems, coaching, event design, applied behavioural psychology — I could go on and on.

Clients don’t often care about human change processes. All they want to know is that I will build them a boat which will get them to Pleasure Island. Nothing more.

Once I understood this, my approach changed completely. My job, when taking that call from a client, is to do two things:

  1. Fully understand Pain Island. What are the problems? What lies behind them? What are the costs of the way things are? How do they feel about the current situation? What will happen if things don’t change?
  2. Help them clarify and clearly articulate Pleasure Island. What exactly do they want? What would be better than just solving the immediately apparent problems? What would be the benefits of being in that new place? What would then become possible?

This means digging deeply into the Boatbuilder’s Big Questions (see below). It usually involves meeting for a longer discussion. It always requires me to tell the client that I can’t give them a price until we have fully explored these questions. Scarily, it has meant turning away prospective clients who just want a price and aren’t prepared to have the detailed discussions required to properly understand their situation and needs so that I can design the right boat.

Making this simple but profound change has transformed my business. Every piece of work I do now is delivering better results. I’m loving doing the work that I know is needed to really make a difference to clients and their organisations. It’s no accident that, over the same period, the business has doubled in size.

What’s this got to do with your challenges?

Think about it. How often do you need to engage others in doing what you think is required to make successful change happen? You probably fall into at least one of these categories:

  • An external consultant — trying to convince clients to commission work.
  • An internal expert/facilitative role (e.g. HR) — trying to help others do their jobs better.
  • A leader — trying to get one or more members of your team to make changes to get better results.

All these roles have one thing in common. They all involve enrolling someone else in changes in which they need to actively participate. To board the boat with you, they will need to feel that you understand their needs and concerns — and that the journey will deliver what they truly want.

Be honest. How often, when trying to help or persuade others to make changes, do you go straight to talking about the Boat? ‘Here’s what you/we should do…’

There are many reasons for this. Maybe it’s because you want to please the other person, are too busy to fully explore Pain and Pleasure Islands or are just impatient to reach a quick conclusion. Whatever the reason, you’re setting yourself up for failure — and doing a disservice to who you are trying to help.

If you don’t ask these questions, the boat you design is unlikely to have all the right features and content until you do so. You’re also failing to help them fully and properly understand today’s issues and to clarify and articulate what success looks like. It’s unlikely that the person you’re trying to help will sign up.

Using this yourself—the Boatbuilder’s Big Questions

Going slowly at first makes speed later easy. The next time you’re trying to enrol someone in a change, ask them these questions:

  1. What are the main outcomes you would like to achieve over the next two or three years?
  2. If you could achieve those outcomes, what would be the benefit?
  3. If you are successful in reaching the outcomes, what else will become possible?
  4. What is currently stopping or slowing you in reaching these goals?
  5. What are the costs and implications of not reaching your goals
  6. How will you need to work together with others to reach the goals?
  7. What would you most like to achieve in the [insert first step of the change] that you are considering?

The final question will lead you into the design conversation. From here you can jointly create an approach which will deliver more than either of you envisaged before you began. It will deliver a solution which you are both completely committed to — and how often can we say that about changes in organisations…?

I hope you can use these ideas yourself. If not, and you’d like help — even if only to think through how you might do so — then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email.

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice — based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson